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Microbeads: What They Are and Why We Care

Posted on Feb 29, 2016 by in Conservation, Education

Microbead Products

Every piece of plastic ever made still exists.

Plastic products are everywhere. Pens, shoes, food packaging, toys, straws, water bottles, and shopping bags are all made of plastic; plastic is all around us. But, did you know there may be plastic in your toothpaste?

Many common household products, including toothpaste, soap, body wash, and makeup contain tiny pieces of plastic called microbeads. Marketed as an exfoliate, these microbeads have replaced natural, biodegradable exfoliates like nutshells and salt crystals in hundreds of personal products on the market.

Pictured above: Plastic microbeads from household products. Microbeads can be less than 1mm across. Credit: Alliance for the Great Lakes Website (

The problem? These microbeads are so small, that our wastewater treatment systems are unable to filter and remove them. And, because these microbeads are made of plastic, they never biodegrade. Over time, these beads continue to accumulate in our world’s waterways; the ocean and the great lakes are currently full of them.

The problem continues as toxins like PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls)can bind to these tiny beads, creating a “toxic soup.” Marine organisms cannot distinguish between microbeads and plankton so these microbeads can be ingested. Check out this video of zooplankton ingesting plastic!

Further studies hope to identify whether these microbeads can be traced up through the food chain, or if the plastic is excreted along the way. Remember, humans are at the top of most ocean food chains.

It is virtually impossible to remove these microbeads from the waterways without also removing beneficial marine life. Our only solution is to stop adding microbeads to the system in the first place. Every person has the choice whether or not to buy products containing microbeads. Check the labels of your products, or check out this database to discover if the products you use contain plastic. Search for polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, and nylon. Each of these ingredients is a fancy name for plastic.

Microbead Label
Check the labels of your products to see if they contain microbeads. Image credit:

The good news is that several states, (IL, ME, NJ, CO, IN, MD, WI, and CA), have already passed legislation to ban the sale of products containing microbeads. Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, L’Oreal, Johnson & Johnson, Target, and Crest have all have pledged to phase out microbeads from their manufactured products. In December 2015, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was approved by the US House and the US Senate. Microbeads will be phased out of products country-wide starting in 2018, but it’s never too early to start at home today.

Here at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium, we hope to help “ban the bead” by spreading the word through education. During our October Homeschool Wednesday, students observed microbeads by straining soap and toothpaste through coffee filters. You can try the lab at home!

If we all do our part, we can stop microbeads from entering our global waterways. The choice is ours.

For more information check out these awesome resources: